Immediately after I graduated high school at 19, I fled my unsafe family home and became homeless. I spent the next two years bouncing between friends’ couches and youth shelters, unsure of what to do with my life.
Today, at age 25, I’m a homeowner with a new car and a pension to look forward to when I retire. If you had told me five years ago that my future had all that in store, I’d have thought you were lying. And I definitely wouldn’t have believed that I’d become a union carpenter and one of the few Hispanic women working in construction in Lansing, Michigan. But that’s the truth, and it’s thanks to the pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs I went through.
This week marks National Apprenticeship Week, and as former apprentices like me are celebrating the transformative impact of apprenticeship programs, Republicans in the House of Representatives are attempting to reduce their funding. A Republican-sponsored funding bill would eliminate the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)’s youth employment and training grant program and would significantly cut the adult employment and training program. This would mean thousands of people across the United States would lose access to programs like the ones that changed my life.
When I became homeless at 19, I knew nothing about the trades and had a bleak outlook on my economic future. But my life soon changed when I saw an advertisement for an organization now called Women in Skilled Trades, or WIST, which receives WIOA funding here in Michigan. I took a bus from my youth shelter to their job expo, which was populated with booths from local trade unions. I came away from the event thinking, “I can absolutely see myself doing this.”
I soon joined WIST’s pre-apprenticeship program, which was designed to prepare women like me to enter the skilled trades. By the time I graduated from the program, I had been accepted into an apprenticeship with the Carpenters Union Local 1004.
Over the next few years, my living situation slowly improved. With the money I earned from my apprenticeship, I got my driver’s license and bought a used car. WIST’s leader, Tori Menold, was kind enough to let me stay with her until I was able to start renting a duplex.
This past year, at age 24, I graduated from my apprenticeship and became a journeywoman carpenter. That graduation ushered in far better life changes than my high school graduation did. Having finally reached financial stability and independence, I bought my first new car and my own house. It felt surreal, given how unsure of my future I had been just a few years earlier.
My own economic progress mirrors a broader renaissance occurring in the trades right now under President Joe Biden’s economic plans — for all workers, but especially for women. Today, every job site I work on has several other women working alongside me. Over the past couple of years alone, the culture has become far more welcoming, as more women have entered the field. In fact, our industry is experiencing such a boom that we’re struggling to meet the demand for workers quickly enough.
If Republican politicians succeed in pushing their funding bill through Congress, not only would it slow that progress, but it would also mean fewer young people with stories like mine. A career in the trades changed my life and set me up for success. As our country experiences the biggest boom in the construction industry in 50 years following the passage of President Biden’s infrastructure and clean energy investments, we need to be working to expand pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship opportunities, not taking them away. The future of our economy depends on a well-trained workforce, and if access to that training is taken away, it’s going to hurt both our economy and the career prospects for a lot of hard-working Americans who simply want to build a better life for themselves.
Raquell Rivera lives in Lansing, Michigan, where she is represented as a member of Carpenters Union Local 1004.